All over the UK people are looking forward to being reunited with loved ones. After months of separation friends and family are once again allowed to meet and spend time together as lockdown measures put in place to curb the spread of the Coronavirus are eased.
But the joy is not universal, for many people the end of the lockdown does not signal an end to isolation, if anything the sight of family and friends being reunited only makes their own loneliness more acute.
For many people isolation did not begin with the Coronavirus lockdown. All over the UK hundreds of thousands of older people face the pain of loneliness on a daily basis and have done for years.
Loneliness is a hidden epidemic here in the UK and just like the Coronavirus it effects older people more than any other group.
In Britain over 3.5 million older people live alone and just under half say that the television or a pet is their main form of company. Over a million older people say they regularly go for more than a month without speaking to a friend, neighbour or family member.
The impact of loneliness can be devastating and, over time, just as painful and debilitating as any physical illness. Loneliness has been proven to contribute to a number of health conditions such as depression, anxiety and insomnia, while people with a high degree of loneliness are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s as those who have an active social network.
Chronic loneliness can happen to anyone. The vast majority of lonely people once enjoyed busy and active social lives but changes in circumstances such as the loss of a partner, retirement or an illness can set in motion a sequence which over time leads to ever-increasing levels of isolation.
Breaking the cycle of loneliness can be incredibly difficult. There is a stigma surrounding loneliness which means that sufferers are often reluctant to admit that they are lonely. Some refuse to ask for help because they have too much pride or don’t wish to be a burden to others. Even though there are services in almost every part of the UK which aim to tackle loneliness among the older population those who need those services most often won’t reach out without some prompting from others.
If the lockdown has given us anything it should be a renewed appreciation for the people in our lives – the friends, family and loved ones to whom we turn for comfort, joy, support and a sense of belonging. It should also give us a greater sense of empathy for those without these vital networks. Those for whom loneliness is a way of life.
For many older people, the lockdown has conversely been somewhat of a respite from years of loneliness and isolation. For the first time in a long while they’ve had neighbours and friends calling to check on them. They have enjoyed more rather than less regular contact with the outside world through services like food parcels and local initiatives.
During the lockdown communities across the UK did an amazing job of reaching out and supporting the oldest and most vulnerable members of our society. It was one of the few positive features of a pandemic which has had a devastating impact on our society and on older people in particular. The way that individuals and communities have responded to the challenge of coronavirus is one of the proudest achievements of our nation’s recent history.
As lockdown restrictions ease and as we all rush to reunite with our friends and families, to restart our lives and put the seclusion of the last few months behind us; let’s not forget about those older people for whom isolation is an illness which can be cured with something as simple as a knock on the door, a telephone call or a little support and encouragement to re-connect with the wider world.
If you or someone you know is affected by loneliness you can find information about services from the NHS website or from the Age UK website. Alternative you can use the Greysnet “Chat” page to reach out to others.